Architect Lick Fai Eric Ho proposes a new way of approaching design
Architect Lick Fai Eric Ho proposes a new way of approaching design. One that is generated from the bottom-up, that “understands the economic and social value of not only the sharing of resources, but also the cultivation of individual ideas through open collaboration, towards the possibility of an everyday culture and attitude towards design.”
Fueled by capitalism, the generic architecture that we commonly find is increasingly bland and overwhelmed with sameness. The seductive pool of “programmatic alchemy”1 that Rem Koolhaas called for in Bigness rarely occurs in a mixed-use commercial development. Dominated by the same forces shaping such developments, mixed-program is often boiled down to a same formula comprising of chain-stores including a gym, a bookstore, a supermarket, perhaps a home-improvement mega-store and a bank at the most valuable corner spot.
In the third-world, most informal economies are based on off-the-grid networks. Cell-phones hold the key to information dissemination, economic activities, and power. With ad-hoc power supply such as solar power independent of any infrastructural system, polycentric nodes of networks appear in an opposite nature to that of the infrastructure of the developed-world. The collective of individuals form a collaborative network in contrast to hegemonic consumerism. The same is also occurring, perhaps at a higher speed and more heightened level of change in the developed world where web 2.0 and social media is maturing and entering the life of anyone with access to the internet. It no doubt creates a new form of public sphere in our society, changes the way we interact, discuss issues, share half-baked thoughts, or post the status of every second of our lives.
What we see in this notion of collaborative network is the potential for the generation of a bottom-up design methodology, an informal ‘idea-infrastructure’ formed by the process of co-designing with public opinion involving a multitude of voices-a truer design process that is more representative of our pluralistic society. With movements such as “multitude” and “collaborative consumption,” we are beginning to see the economic and social value of not only the sharing of resources, but also the cultivation of individual ideas through open collaboration, towards the possibility of an everyday culture and attitude towards design.
From collaborative consumption to collaborative creation
“Collaborative consumption describes the rapid explosion in traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, and swapping reinvented through network technologies on a scale and in ways never possible before.”2
Car-sharing, apartment-sharing, swap-trading has become more of a commonplace in our society with the success of entities such as Zipcar, Airbnb, CouchSurfing, Netflix, SwapTree, BookMooch, etc. The culture of massive consumption has given a face-lift. By reinventing the redistribution channel, we are enjoying access to resources that we do not necessarily need to own individually. Technology and social media have also reinterpreted our lifestyles. Blogging, twittering, has all contribute to a collaborative and sharing lifestyle that transcends geographical boundaries and time. By short circuiting the middleman, the crowd is taking on a new consumption pattern in contrast to hegemonic capitalism through technological breakthroughs.
If such a collaborative and technological network is taking on a new role for consumption, the same infrastructure could be utilized for its role in creativity. Creative Commons, a nonprofit that promotes the sharing of creative work, gives a new definition for of “copyright”, “For those creators wishing to opt out of the copyright altogether, Creative Commons helps them do so by providing tools that allow you to place your work as squarely as possible within the public domain – a ‘no rights reserved’ alternative to copyright.”3 Authorship has always been the guarded gem of creativity because when one idea is copied, the economic value an idea is lost. With collaborative creation, there is no single author. Multiple authors contribute to a same pool, and extracting from the same pool, rift and borrow from others, while all participants benefit from the inspiration, feedback, and expertise that not one individual could enjoy alone. Essentially the idea that one plus one equals to more than two. The same problematic is stretched to a different level of perspective given the diversity and synergy of its authors, making the solution more versatile, adaptable, and transformable. Of course the economic benefit is hard to measure, but it is a leap of faith that such a culture would create a cascading effect that is larger than just any one individual project.
In the theater arts, devising theater has been a more experimental form of performance in which multiple actors contribute to a play in which there is no screenplay. “It is determined and defined by a group of people who set up an initial framework or structure to explore and experiment with ideas, images, concepts, themes, or specific stimuli that might include music, text, objects, paintings, or movement… Devising is a process of making theater that enables a group of performers to be physically and practically creative in the sharing and shaping of an original product that directly emanates from assembling, editing, and re-shaping individual’s contradictory experiences of the world. There is a freedom of possibilities for all those involved to discover; an emphasis on a way of working that supports intuition, spontaneity, and an accumulation of ideas. The process of devising is about the fragmentary experience of understanding ourselves, our culture, and the world we inhabit. The process reflects a multi-vision made up of each group members’ individual perception of that world as received in a series of images, then interpreted and defined as a product. Participants make sense of themselves within their own cultural and social context, investigating, integrating, and transforming their personal experiences, dreams, research, improvisation, and experimentation. Devising is about thinking, conceiving, and forming ideas, being imaginative and spontaneous, as well as planning. It is about inventing, adapting, and creating what you do as a group.”4 The notion of the experimentation of specific concepts and stimuli is particularly inspiring. As these notions could be presented to the public for a process of interpretation that would yield results that are unpredictable and challenges the status quo.
But what is the ultimate benefit of a ‘devising’ architecture? The idea is simple: that bottom-up and original ideas can challenge preconceived notions of what architecture is and can do. On one hand it challenges the production of architecture, and on the other the self-organization and self-actualization aspect of its participants, in other words, the cultivation of a creative culture in the public.
“It is not, therefore, for us to bear the responsibility and task to ‘initiate change’, but rather simply to live its ethos, to produce its culture, to ceaselessly speculate and project, and to depend on its statistical distribution, its macroscopic determinacy…organization (design) need not be a reality itself – condemning us to mystical naturalism – but a negotiation between the real and what is merely imagined, felt, intuited, or anticipated.”5
Traditionally an architect’s client would define site, budget, program, and the architect would determine a form and expression to satisfy the client’s desires. Such desires can vary from maximizing plot ratio for maximum profit, to building a world-class museum that operates solely on its aesthetic appeal. In such context, there is hardly any room for reinterpretation from the public. The public is a passive receiver. Even the most mature and elaborated community buy-in process would involve the architect drawing out a client’s needs and then asking the community for their input on different proposals that were predetermined within a range of the client’s desires. The public is still a passive receiver, even though they appear to be given a certain liberty of choice.
What if we start the process from the other end of the spectrum, and attempt to first extract the public’s desire? What we traditionally understand as a public architectural typology needs a redefinition. While traditionally public architecture is defined by its function, scale and how architectural expressions signify its public importance, the new public typology is defined by the public process that gives birth to such a building. The form of this new public is hard to conceive, since it is liberated from site, budget, program and client, the traditional elements that are fixed in architecture. It is liberated from program because it is organically formed by public opinion. It is liberated from site because anyone could adopt and use the mass-developed programs where it see fits. It is liberated from budget because the same program could be developed at different sites with different scales. It is liberated from client because there is no one person to drive the program and design, but everybody can initiate change and harvest from a collective and collaborative pool of resources and designs that are developed for different functions and purposes.
In this context we must accept the fact that our societal values are massively different, and therefore a singular notion of a design solution would never satisfy the desire of the pluralistic public. The ground rules of such a project is then flipped. If notions such as change, multiplicity, and hybridization are our constants, and site, budget, clients are our variables, how would we conceive such a project?
Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist active in the food-tasting industry gave us a good reference of how one single solution could never satisfy the mass, “Moskowitz set up shop in the seventies, and one of his first clients was Pepsi. The artificial sweetener aspartame had just become available, and Pepsi wanted Moskowitz to figure out the perfect amount of sweetener for a can of Diet Pepsi. Pepsi knew that anything below eight per cent sweetness was not sweet enough and anything over twelve per cent was too sweet. So Moskowitz did the logical thing. He made up experimental batches of Diet Pepsi with every conceivable degree of sweetness—8 per cent, 8.25 per cent, 8.5, and on and on up to 12—gave them to hundreds of people, and looked for the concentration that people liked the most. But the data were a mess—there wasn’t a pattern—and one day, sitting in a diner, Moskowitz realized why. They had been asking the wrong question. There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis.”6
On another occasion, Moskowitz was questioning the public to find a public desire that had not yet existed, “Standard practice in the food industry would have been to convene a focus group and ask spaghetti eaters what they wanted. But Moskowitz does not believe that consumers—even spaghetti lovers—know what they desire if what they desire does not yet exist. “The mind,” as Moskowitz is fond of saying, “knows not what the tongue wants.” Instead, working with the Campbell’s kitchens, he came up with forty-five varieties of spaghetti sauce. These were designed to differ in every conceivable way: spiciness, sweetness, tartness, saltiness, thickness, aroma, mouth feel, cost of ingredients, and so forth. He had a trained panel of food tasters analyze each of those varieties in depth. Then he took the prototypes on the road—to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville—and asked people in groups of twenty-five to eat between eight and ten small bowls of different spaghetti sauces over two hours and rate them on a scale of one to a hundred. When Moskowitz charted the results, he saw that everyone had a slightly different definition of what a perfect spaghetti sauce tasted like. If you sifted carefully through the data, though, you could find patterns, and Moskowitz learned that most people’s preferences fell into one of three broad groups: plain, spicy, and extra-chunky, and of those three the last was the most important. Why? Because at the time there was no extra-chunky spaghetti sauce in the supermarket.”7
To equate spaghetti sauce or Pepsis to architecture is a slippery road. But the fact is that most architecture that we find are very much produced by the same kind of cookie-cutter, even though they come in all kinds and shapes, the challenge is to find the process of conceiving this ‘extra-chunky spaghetti sauce’ in architecture. The problem is not what form of architecture we want, but how architecture is conceived as a cultural process in the public sphere, and how to stimulate the public for multiple desires that they are yet to find out. For a simple question that is prompted for the public, the result would almost always be plural rather than singular.
Four Open Trajectories
There has been a rich history of architects and urban planners advocating open processes of design. I would categorize these into four trajectories. The first involves the establishment of a free and open planning system that is non-prescriptive. Reyner Banham, Paul Barker, Peter Hall, Cedric Price’s “Non-plan” (1969) openly challenges the model of urban planning pre-determined by functions specified by “experts,” what Paul Barker noted as ‘essentially a very humble idea: that it is very difficult to decide what is best for other people’. Peter Hall further pushed this agenda and led to the establishment of enterprise zones in the UK, and notable success in the London Docklands which converted derelict industrial area into a successful financial district by alleviating tax and planning restrictions.
The second trajectory involves the empowerment of the individual and the public in the public decision process of planning. Paul Davidoff’s Advocacy and pluralism in planning (1965) suggests planner operate like attorneys to support individual and community interests. There is an urge to directly connect the individuals and empower them in the decision making process. This led to a lot of influence in the United Nations and the way transitional housing and post-disaster or refuge housing are planned, empowering the community in the decision making process of newly constructed settlements, towns and city. This also led to the development of “community design centers,” which became “the staging ground for professionals to represent the interests of disenfranchised community groups.”8 These centers are still active in many cities across the US.
The third trajectory is an open building or indeterminate building process, perhaps best coined by John Habraken in Supports: an alternative to mass housing (1961). In this model the architect designs the more permanent framework and infrastructure and the inhabitants can modify the less permanent components such as partitions and facade systems. In this process user participation operates at a smaller scale and a later phase. This trajectory also have many variations shared by and not limited to Herman Hertzberger, Cedric Price, Yona Friedman, Arata Isozaki. Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (1960) was visionary in the way programs are transformable and indeterminate, which became a strong influence in the design of Centre Pompidou. The groups Metabolists and Archigram also share similar notion of infrastructure with plug-in and mobile components, although operating at an even larger city-wide scale. This trajectory still has a strong impact in a lot of contemporary work. Elemental by Alejandro Aravena operates exactly from the “core and infill” concept where the vital half of the building which includes amenities is built, and participants fill in the rest of the structure according to their own budget and aesthetic preferences. They have successfully built quality low-cost housing projects in Chile and Mexico recently using this methodology. REX / OMA’s Wyly Theater, in a very different manner, addresses a “transformable” theatrical machine that is adaptable to various events within the same genre of Fun Palace. Teddy Cruz takes this concept even further by adopting and learning informal architecture and shanty towns such as Tijuana and layering indeterminate and “incubating programs” as a process of social change led by inhabitants.
The fourth trajectory deals with events at the public level that engage users less explicitly. This trajectory does not necessarily asks the users directly for their opinions and participation, nor does it empower the individuals through a decision making process, but indirectly recognizes and reads a city infused by activities and interactions between the inhabitants. Jane Jacob’s The death and life of great american cities (1961) embraces the power of neighbors and neighborhood. Michel de Certeau’s Practice of everyday life (1984) engages the city as a text that is read and written by its very own citizen. I would also argue that John Hedjuk’s Berlin Masques (1979-83), and Bernard Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcript(1976-81) also operates in this genre. Their work questions of relationships between the city and its inhabitants in terms of time, events, movement, etc. They probe into the more subjective realms of folklore, individualities sponsored by the most spontaneous, unpredictable aspect of the public: human nature. This trajectory offer the widest and often most unexpected tract of research and experimentation.
The four trajectories vary in the degree of public engagement and control. They offer a backbone and framework towards a collaborative process. It is possible that for some instances, the solution is not to build anything but to impose events and programs. And for other instances, the solution would be a policy versus actual architecture. Yet for others, a new typology of architecture would be needed for a collaborative process. The balance of planning freedom, individual empowerment, anticipatory architecture, and public events gives us four powerful processes as a starting point for further action. Although with open participation and anticipatory framework in principle, these processes are either singularly conceived with a dominant author or a dominant ideology that influence changes from top-town, or are conceived to read the city and environment passively as a description and observation.
A Pluralistic Public Sphere of Design and Public Sphere of Production
In ‘Multitude’, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argued that “we are entering an era where the ruled now tend to the the exclusive producers of social organization… not only is it not necessary for the one to rule (one referring to one entity such as a monarch or a political party), but in fact that the one never rules! In contrast to the transcendental model that poses a unitary sovereign subject standing above society, biopolitical social organization begins to appear absolutely immanent, where all the elements interact on the same plane.”9
This “plane of immanence” is not about a formal or physical organization, but of a collaborative informational channel and platform. What we are lacking is a pluralistic public sphere of design, and subsequently a public sphere of production. To further quote Hardt and Negri, “Producing in common presents the possibility of the production of the common, which is itself a condition of the creation of the multitude.”10 Producing in common is in fact a public sphere where discourse is revolved around specific agendas and issues contributed collaboratively by the public, while the production of the common are objects, physical artifacts that result from this discourse through a renewed form of networked and collaborative production. With the maturing networked technologies, public spheres have also evolved in its form in the society, we no longer need to meet and deliberate in coffee houses or salons, or to assemble physically at one specific time. Kazys Varnelis’s book “Network Publics” describes this condition, “the term networked publics references a linked set of social, cultural, and technological developments that have accompanied the growing engagement with digitally networked media…. now publics are communicating more and more through complex networks that are bottom-up, top-down, as well as side-to-side.”11 Assembly and discourse could happen at anytime and anyplace suitable for its participants, on your smart-phone, between subway rides… with participants that span from one end of the world to another. Time, place and access, the traditionally limiting factors of assembly, has been freed with anyone that as access to the web, enhancing the openness of this assembly that traditionally is limited to the privileged.
The implication is two-fold: the possibility of a truly open creative channel that anyone, designers and non-designers alike can contribute in their own medium, where public ideas are openly shared, borrowed, rifted, copied, critiqued, enabled, etc, a collective pool where ideas are bred and harvested on an ideally infinitely open platform; also as important is a public sphere of production, in which the traditional middle-man and gatekeepers are bypassed and the consumers can directly communicate freely and effectively to suppliers and producers at a lower cost and higher level of customization that fits the pluralistic desires of the public. One is focused on the cultivation of ideas and discourse around specific agenda, in this case the design of our city and environment, the other focused on the production of objects via a collaborative and open supply chain.
A pluralistic public sphere of design, however, is not one that needs a determined result. In the latter case different voices are liberated through a collective platform, pros and cons are debated and a consensus is reached through this public process, or a “deliberative democracy”. This is the methodology in which many public decisions are made including approval or choice of design proposals in community board meetings, and many other political decisions in our democratic society. The system prioritize on the supposedly fairness in which each party involved in the decision making process is given an equal opportunity to voice their opinions, and thus the collective decision, through a supposedly fair debate, is a fairly negotiated solution that balances and compromises the interests of all parties. Even though in this system there is a tendency for hegemony. The objective of such a system is to arrive at a close-ended solution for a specific problem.
The nature of design is always open-ended, however. Options are always proposed for clients, and there is never a fixated idea, and always a better idea to come. A pluralistic public sphere of design operates along this ideology. It does not need a close-ended solution. In fact, it wants to be as open-ended as possible so that it could adapt and situate itself in different situations given a larger problematic. It is relative rather than absolute, it prioritizes on the cultivation of a diversity of opinions rather than comprising different opinions as a silver-bullet solution. It operates more closely to what Chantal Mouffe stated as “agonistic pluralism”. The objective of a pluralistic public sphere is to generate creativity, and to gather a collective pool of ideas that each individual one, given the right circumstances, could flourish. No one idea is better or worse than another, because each can be chosen and used to adapt for different circumstances. There is no authoritative figure to decide which idea qualifies or not, only a series of debates and comments that naturally follows. It gravitates towards informal and organic development of information and ideas: more folk oriented, more close to the people, more amateur, more off-the-record and half-finished ideas, more organic, and more along the lines of natural selection.
The series of technological advancement throughout the century has given us various upgrades in our production cycle. From mass production we enjoy the low cost and availability of products because of the economies of scales. From mass customization we enjoy certain liberty of choices that adapt to our needs because of the shift from analog to digital production. We are now entering into an age of yet another new possibility of production, of mass creation or a public sphere of production, where the collaborative capabilities of technology are enabling ideas originating from the mass and sourced by the mass simultaneously for its production. This public sphere of production is intrinsically tied with the ideas generation phase and essentially an extension of it. It also means the opening up of traditional guarded trades such as the construction trade. The suppliers would need to be more open-ended, allowing the mass to understand the production mechanisms, participate on its production and innovate within that; it is essentially a horizontal platform that users, designers, and suppliers become equal within the design and production cycle through effective information and knowledge sharing. The breaking down of these barriers and protectionism of trades would be a long process towards true mass creation where the mass has the power to generate ideas and produce them simultaneously.
The agency of architect
The form of such a collaborative network and how it would function is still in a fetal stage of development. There may be many iterations and many versions of such platforms, each tailored for its specific purpose. One constant of these collaborative networks would be the empowerment of the crowd. Crowd-sourcing becomes a natural outcome if we turn the dial to a full degree of openness. The crowd contribute ideas, work on concepts, collaborate with each other organically, and even evaluate the results and provide feedback. Design by blogging, even design by twittering could be possible where ideas are disseminated and discussed before any program, site, or concepts are proposed. The crowd becomes designers and users simultaneously. The benefit of a fully open creative platform, like any other collaborative consumption entities, is that the cost of innovation becomes extremely affordable if not entirely free, as resources, in this case information and knowledge are distributed and shared more effectively. The speed and ability for ideas to update and regenerate also exponentially increases. Ideas are bred through this collaborative network, the more variety we breed, the more adaptable the harvest is for the real world. The collaborative network also allows other practitioners to contribute expertise on particular projects. Open Ideo is one example of what this platform could look like. Each participant is given a profile, a “design quotient” or “DQ” profile, and they can contribute inspirations, design concepts, evaluate ideas, collaborate, everyone can participate in their own way according to their own strength and resources. The DQ that you have essentially gives you a credibility in this stranger-meets-stranger collaborative network. The higher the rating you have as a participant, the more reliable you are as a contributor to the collaborative system, like your dedicated Amazon marketplace seller that ships your product immediately upon receiving his order. The establishment, recognition, and cultivation of the individual in such a system is a key to successful commitment into the system.
The pitfall of such a model is that creativity, unlike products, is a service and something intangible. The professionalism of such a service could be seriously compromised and rendered useless if the crowd runs amok. The quality of the crowd determines the quality of the design product. This is where architects and designers can step in for the cultivation of public creativity. Sanford Kwinter’s definition of an innovative architect gives us an insight of the project ahead of us, “an innovative architect is one who is not neurotically preoccupied with definitions. An architect who is heedless of boundaries, adventurous to the point of recklessness, who can endlessly tolerate the disapproval of his/her peers, and who is willing to be dismissed as an “engineer,” a “sociologist,” a “filmmaker,” an “entrepreneur,” an “editor,”, etc. An architect who sees buildings as one link in the chain of social-design problem. An architect who sees ‘the human’ as an unfixed thing–an ongoing experiment–and who knows that design is always the design of the human being. “12
Architects or designers hold a vital role as agents for the public. The opening of design to the public could have many trajectories. As architects it is both exciting and weary. Exciting because it means that design could step out into a territory that it has never reached before, fueled by technologies that is available at hand, and also in the hands of the amateurs that could turn out to be massive forces of creativity. Weary because architects has evolved from being the sole author to co-authors, total control over the design is lost to the general lay-person that do not necessarily have any understanding of architecture as a discourse in the contemporary society.
The question is balance and the role of architects in the mass creation process. In my opinion there are four vital roles of architects in this mass creation process: the first as research-journalist, the second as brief-writers, the third as facilitators, and the fourth as design partners to the public. Research-journalists scoop the general condition of the specific question at hand, gather the possible cause and research solutions that have been applied to the problem in the past, in a different context or in another field or profession. Brief-writers ask specific questions in the public realm, consciously directing intervention in focused topics, context, or agenda yet opening the discussion towards the public. Facilitators help the open dialogue proceed in a constructive direction dominated by the crowd, they listen then ask questions, and is an important process in the incubation of a creative culture of the public. Good facilitators encourage open discussions and reveals potentials that are not seen by others. Design partners co-design with the public, offering professional expertise that is otherwise inaccessible and unaffordable for the public, such as representing the public for the contractor. The public need some kind of expertise to represent their concepts in spatial terms, and design partners could be the public’s hands to draw out their desires. This is the most ambiguous of the four, yet offers the widest range of possibilities as an experimentation of different forms of representation and process of co-creation with the public.
A new paradigm of design
Given the right circumstances, mass creation would grow and evolve naturally. It is not something that one could start or stop, but recognize and nurture at its beginning stage. Beyond contextualization, observing and listening becomes part of the vital process of conceiving architecture, we should ask the right questions and seek answers together proactively with the public. Although the social engagement movement in architecture started in the sixties, the conversation seems to have left off since then. The maturity of social media technologies seems to have brought us new lights of how a creative and collaborative network may form, something more proactive, something closer to the grounds, something more original, something more open, something lighter, something more humane, and something more massive and everyday. This is only the beginning of a new generation of architectural culture to come, it will never be a closed and complete project, but an open query of a new paradigm in design.
1.Rem Koolhaas, “Bigness,” S,M,L,XL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1997), 494. ↵
2.Rachel Botsman and Roos Rogers, The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, collaborativeconsumption.com. ↵
4. Alison Oddey, Devising Theater: A Practical and Theoretical Handbook, 1. ↵
5.Sanford Kwinter, “Confession of an Organicist,” Log 5. ↵
6. Malcolm Gladwell, “The Ketchup Conundrum,” The New Yorker, September 6, 2004. ↵
7. Ibid. ↵
8. Henry Sanoff, Community Participation Methods in design and Planning, 4. ↵
9. Multitude: war and democracy in the age of empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, p 337. ↵
10. Ibid, 338. ↵
11. Introduction, Networked Publics, Mizuko Ito, edited by Kazys Varnelis, 3. ↵
12. Sanford Kwinter, “109 Provisional Attempts to Address Six Simple And Hard Questions,” Hunch 6/7. ↵
Lick Fai Eric Ho is a licensed architect practising in NYC. He has taught at Harvard GSD, Boston Architectural Center and was an invited critic for Columbia University, New York Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute. As a founding member of Tsunami Design Initiative, he collaborated with MIT Senseable City Lab and Prajnopaya Foundation on the construction of the Tsunami Safe(r) house in Sri Lanka.